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Workers' rights protected by employment laws

MANY people join a trade union because they feel that their boss could otherwise ride roughshod over their rights -- but can a union really stop this from happening?

"It's not necessary to be a member of a union to get your full employment rights in Ireland," says Mary Brassil, a partner with McCann FitzGerald's employment group. "Irish legislation (supported by EU law) provides employees with robust protection for their rights. Employees may be entitled to further employment benefits if they are members of a union and their employer has entered into a collective agreement with the union which provides for such additional benefits. Collective agreements are generally not legally enforceable by the parties to them. However, the terms of such an agreement may become incorporated into a contract of employment and hence, be enforceable by the employee against the employer -- or vice versa."

So if you're not a member of a union and you believe your boss is infringing your employment rights, what exactly can you do? There are "comprehensive dispute resolution mechanisms" in place to resolve employment disputes, explains Brassil. "In general, it is neither expensive nor cumbersome for employees to try to enforce their employment rights in Ireland ," says Brassil. "If you take a claim against your employer to the Employment Appeals Tribunal or the Equality Tribunal, for example, you're not at risk of bearing your employer's costs should you fail in your action."

You could be waiting a couple of years to have your case heard in a tribunal, however -- unless you avail of a mediation service. If you're living in Dublin, you currently have to wait 68 weeks to have an unfair dismissal case heard in the Employment Appeals Tribunal; two years to have an equality case heard in the Equality Tribunal.

You could also take your case to the civil courts -- this can be very expensive. "If you wish to enforce your rights before a civil court, such as the High Court, it can be an expensive and complex process," explains Brassil. "Furthermore, you are at risk of bearing your employer's costs should you fail in your action."

Union membership is no guarantee that you will have someone to negotiate better pay rates or stand up for you should you feel hard done by. Many US multinationals don't deal with unions and some Irish companies are openly hostile to them. "Union recognition is industry specific and there is no obligation on employers to recognise a union," says Brassil.

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